Growing up to Paint Bapu

Two boys who grew up in Gandhi’s shadow in Ahmedabad went on to pursue professional artistic careers of some note. One of them was grandnephew Dhiren, or Dhiru as the Mahatma referred to him in his correspondence. Deemed the first painter to emerge from the Gandhi family, Dhiren appears to have begun doodling and drawing as a child growing up in the austere ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati that Gandhi called home between June 1917 and March 1930. In July 1932, Gandhi agreed to secure for him proper drawing classes, and as importantly, a few months later in March 1933, decided to send him for further training to that renowned art education institution of pre-independence India, Santiniketan. A letter he wrote in this context also includes one of Gandhi’s most revealing statements about art—and painting. “Painting also can be of two kinds, divine and demoniac, sattvik and rajsik, moral and immoral… Painting is silent music. We can see from our experience of paintings which excite passion that, if a painter painted pictures which would purify us of passion, their power would be felt even by the coarsest of men.”

Dhiren Gandhi turned out in a few years to be an artist with a Gandhian sensibility. He sketched, drew, and painted moving images of his granduncle meditating, sleeping, and most dramatically, fasting for 21 days in early 1943 while interned at the Aga Khan Palace in Poona on yet another term as a colonial prisoner (Fig. 2). Several of Dhiren’s works were autographed by his famous subject (Fig. 1). Along with his older brother Navin (who also grew up in the ashram, and is credited with some much-circulated photographs of Gandhi, and a life-size portrait of his grandaunt Kasturba), Dhiren went on to establish an art school in Bombay in 1944 called Rupayatan, where children from the Vile Parle neighborhood were taught arts and crafts free of cost.

At the other end of the social and caste spectrum from Dhiren Gandhi stands Chhaganlal Jadav (1903–87), the first Dalit artist who we know of to draw and paint the Mahatma. His remarkable sketches of Gandhi at one of his most disobedient moments—the Salt Satyagraha of 1930—have only recently come to light. As a child born into a weaver family, young Chhagan was deemed in the parlance of the day an antyaj (outcaste). From the recently-published oral history of the artist, we learn that Chhagan attended as a 12-year-old the night school for antyaj children set up by Gandhi in Kochrab in 1915. In his autobiography in a chapter titled “On the Anvil,” the Mahatma writes in some detail (but from his perspective) that the pledge taken against the “sinful” practice of untouchability in his ashram led to the arrival of Dudabhai, his wife Daniben, and infant daughter (Lakshmi) who took up residence despite considerable tension in the new community. No mention is made however of a similar “adoption” of Chhagan, who with Gandhi’s blessings, reportedly went on to study with two of Gujarat’s most famous artists, Kanu Desai and Ravishankar Raval, eventually making a name for himself as an artist from around 1935.

When still a young man, Chhagan got caught up in the excitement of the Salt Satyagraha and its aftermath, producing some intimate portraits of Gandhi, including of him sleeping, the Mahatma himself adding his autograph to these (Fig. 3; Fig. 4). Given his start as a school teacher in a Gandhian institution, he also painted a charming portrait of a national school in Karadi. When Gandhi was assassinated on 30 January 1948, Chhagan reportedly shut himself up in his room in Ahmedabad for several days and painted a series of grief-filled images of his mentor and muse.

Outside Gandhi’s Gujarat, some of India’s most famous artists who went on to create some memorable works on the Mahatma have also recounted their childhood memories of Gandhi. “As a school student, I worshipped Gandhiji and he has remained in my heart for ever as a moral force and guiding spirit,” writes Kerala-born, Santiniketan-trained, New Delhi-based A. Ramachandran (b. 1934). Recalls Tamil artist K.M. Adimoolam (1938–2008), “While in Keerambur as a nine-year old, I witnessed the celebration of Indian independence. The rich people in our village distributed sweets to the students every day for a week. Everybody talked about only Gandhi. There was even a song about how he brought independence to India. I always regarded him as a great yogi.” When the Gandhi centenary year was celebrated in 1969, Adimoolam, by then a well-established artist, produced some stunning sketches of Gandhi, including one titled Smiling Like a Child, which, given the Mahatma’s own aspiration to be childlike, would have undoubtedly pleased him (Fig. 5)!

Not least, let us hear from Maqbool Fida Husain (1915–2011), pioneering modernist and prolific painter. Young Maqbool likely sketched the figure of the Mahatma for the first time when he was sent off around 1925 to study in the princely state of Baroda (not far from Gandhi’s headquarters, then, in Ahmedabad). Decades later, Husain visually recalled this moment in his Autobiography XIV: ‘Madrasa Hisamia’ Boarding School in Baroda, Nationalist Leader Abbas Tyabji its patron. On Gandhi Jayanti Day I did a sketch of Gandhi on black board. Our school uniform was Gandhi topi. Medium of Instruction Gujarati, Urdu and Arabic. Maulavi Akbar taking the class. I am sitting holding a fan next to my lifelong friend Arshad (specs) (Fig. 6). The work shows young Husain wearing a Gandhi cap (topi) and seated on the floor of his Baroda classroom, its wall adorned with a portrait of the Mahatma (presumably done by Maqbool the school child) clad in his dhoti and bare-chested. Placed next to him is the portrait of Gandhi’s compatriot Abbas Tyabji who in 1930 would provide leadership for the Salt Satyagraha after the Mahatma was arrested and imprisoned. “The world is at their feet. These talented men. The fools just pass by,” so recalled Husain years later in a verse he had apparently memorized on the occasion of Gandhi’s birthday.

Sketches in his memoirs (published in English, Urdu and Gujarati over the years from 2002) show Husain drawing Gandhi on a school blackboard (Fig. 7). A busy untitled work from his Our Planet Called Earth series (2008) also included a visual vignette of the artist as a young boy wearing a Gandhi topi and seated in front of a canvas sketching a portrait of the Mahatma on the latter’s birthday, the national tricolor serving as backdrop (Fig. 8). From the time he first started sketching him as a young boy to the eve of his own death in June 2011, the Mahatma appears luminously and in various guises in Husain’s numerous canvases. Gandhi was in Husain’s words his “favorite subject.”
The child artist of Mumbai who annually responds to the call from Mani Bhavan to paint Gandhi on his birthday is thus in good company with such worthy precedents and ancestors from the professional world of Indian art.

Select References
Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi 50: 138; 54: 243.
M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth, translated from the Original in Gujarati by Mahadev Desai, Introduced with Notes by Tridip Suhrud. Gurgaon: Penguin Random House India, 2018.

Aditi De, “A Life in a Line: The Drawings of K. M. Adimoolam.” In Lines from an Artistic Life: The Drawings of Adimoolam, edited by Krishen Khanna, Aditi De, and Jehangir Sabavala, 8–61. Ahmedabad: Mapin, 2007; Rizwan Kadri, ed., Unseen Drawings of Dandi March: Drawings of Chhaganlal Jadav. Ahmedabad: Sri Swaminarayan Gadi Sansthan, 2018; A. Ramachandran, “Life Linedrawings.” In A. Ramachandran: Life and Art in Lines, Drawings, Sketches and Studies, 1958 to 1987, edited by R. Siva Kumar, vol. 1, 10–64. New Delhi: Vadehra Art Gallery and Lalit Kala Akademi, 2014; Sumathi Ramaswamy, Husain’s Raj: Visions of Empire and Nation. Mumbai: Marg, 2010; Manu Thacker and G. Venkatachalam, Present Day Painters of India. Bombay: Sudhangshu Publications, c. 1950; and G. Venkatachalam, “The Moods of a Mahatma: Six Pencil Sketches by Dhiren Gandhi.” In Prayer and Other Sketches of Mahatma Gandhi by Dhiren Gandhi. Bombay: Times of India Press, 1945.